UNICEF: Climate food crisis a disaster for children

As Al Gore touches down in Dublin for the Hunger, Nutrition, Climate Justice conference in Dublin, UNICEF’s Natasha Adams explains why children will be hit the hardest by a climate induced food crisis.

By Natasha Adams

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) 25 million more children will be malnourished in 2050 due to the effects of climate change.

The impact of climate change on access to food is huge. Natural hazards like droughts and floods are becoming more frequent and more severe, and rainfall patterns are changing.

As the climate changes, this affects how much food can be grown across the world. In developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is predicted that climate change will shrink harvests by as much as 21% by 2080.

In some places, the effects will be felt much sooner than that – arguably they are being felt already. By 2020, rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall are likely to reduce the production of staple foods by up to 50% in some African countries.

This is a disaster for millions of smallholder farmers, dependent on rain-fed agriculture and already struggling to feed their families. It is also a disaster for the urban poor – as dwindling harvests push food up food prices, parents can’t afford to buy as much food, and children get less to eat.

Eleven-year-old April lost her home when floods hit the Philippines in December 2012 (Source: © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1691/Caton)

Climate change and food – hitting children hardest

Children are least responsible for climate change, and yet they’re the most vulnerable to its effects – challenges to the food system always hit children hardest. Children are still developing physically, making them more susceptible to malnutrition and therefore more at risk of illness and disease as a consequence.

The 2012 Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimates that 200,000 people will die and 200 million people will suffer from food insecurity as a result of climate change in lower income countries – half of these deaths are projected to be children.

Climate change reduces children’s access to nutritious food in several ways. It reduces the amount that can be grown on small and large farms, so poor farmers produce less and poor parents can buy less food for their children (as scarcity drives food price rises).

Research by UNICEF Indonesia in 2011 found that six in ten children said food became more expensive after too much or too little rain.

Climate change and education

Less money from farming can also mean less money for children to go to school. In Indonesia, one in five rural children interviewed in 2011 stated that weather events meant there was not enough money for them to stay in school. This is compounded by the fact that malnourished children get sick more often and therefore miss more lessons.

A UN survey of progress toward the Millennium Development Goals found that school attendance rates are lowest in communities with the highest levels of malnutrition.

The impacts go even further than this – as harvests shrink and poverty deepens, children are at greater risk of being sent out to earn money, and therefore of exploitation. Many families are also forced by changing weather to abandon farms and move to cities, swelling slum populations with no guarantee of more secure livelihoods.

It could be worse than we think…

Sadly, projections for CO2 emissions and a lack of action to reduce these mean that the effect of climate change on global food production is likely to be worse than predicted. So the stark estimates above could be far worse if temperatures rise more than 2 degrees and emissions continue to go unchecked.

We need action now

Urgent action is therefore needed by governments to ensure that children are able to withstand the impact that climate change is having on the food system. Governments must work to urgently reduce C02 emissions. But climate change is already affecting poorer countries, and we’re locked into it worsening even if global energy use were to change overnight.

This means support for poorer countries to adapt is vitally important. Climate change is an additional challenge which cannot be addressed through aid – we urgently need to find new sources of funding to provide climate finance, helping communities in need to adapt, and funding green development.

Happily, there is a global commitment to mobilise $100 billion in climate finance by 2020 – work through international for a like the UNFCCC is needed now to ensure this promise is kept. We need an internationally agreed plan with clear timelines and milestones, outlining how we can mobilise and scale up resources. We need to know how this will be done, where the money will come from and when.

The role of the UK

UNICEF UK believes the Government here should play a leading role in mobilising global climate finance. Our Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has been receptive to our messages about the impact of climate change on children, and he announced the commitment of more aid money to adaptation at COP 17 last year.

If you live in the UK and would like to help us push the UK Government to lead on climate finance, you can take action now by emailing the Minister.

You can also find out more about the effects of climate change on food systems, and impact on children, by reading our policy briefing.

Natasha Adams is the Activism Officer at UNICEF UK. She coordinates several networks of UK campaigners, including Children’s Champions and the Schools Campaign Network, and is also actively involved in the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign.

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